Principles of Mythological Hermeneutics (I)

Principles of Mythological Hermeneutics (I)

Myths are a vital source of information for us about the attributes and activities of our Gods. We can hardly say that they are mere stories, even if we think that they have something less than the status accorded to the sacred texts of the Abrahamic traditions, for instance. But our traditions are very diverse indeed, and there are texts among some of our traditions that have a status scarcely less than this, at any rate. We, too, are ‘people of the book’—only we have many, many books, as well as oral traditions, and rituals, which are another way of encoding information. Nor do these exhaust the ways in which our traditions are embodied.

Even if we do not accord a status to myths equivalent to that of revealed texts, however, we must recognize that insofar as they are authorless, as is said of the sacred texts of the Hindu tradition (the Sanskrit term is apauruṣeya, literally, ‘impersonal’), they cannot merely be grasped in the same fashion as the work of a single discrete human author, that is, they cannot be approached as mere literature. At a minimum, they are works embodying a collective spirit of devotion to our Gods, a product of generation upon generation of experience of Them, and the infrastructure around which entire civilizations formed themselves. Just by virtue of this infrastructural status, a myth cannot be reduced to a single authoritative interpretation, because it is in the very acts of interpreting and applying myths that these civilizations formed themselves, and every formation, every institution, incorporates such interpretations. So the purpose of such interpretation could never be to reach closure, even if our approach to myth was wholly mundane, for even such a mundane approach would have to recognize the generative nature of interpretation.

A fortiori, then, if as some polytheistic thinkers have affirmed, the myths are the eternal and continuous action of the Gods Themselves forming, not merely culture, civilization, but the very cosmos itself, not once upon a time, but forever now, there could be no question of arriving at a final, authoritative interpretation of a myth because our intellectual and devotional engagement with myths is itself part of the life of the cosmos. In our effort to understand a myth, we close a circuit of divine action, a circuit in which the Gods have sown meaning into the cosmos which fructifies through us, through our recognition and understanding of it, and our application of it to our lives on every plane, devotional, intellectual, ethical, corporeal.

Insofar as myth is not only a token of the Gods’ action constitutive of the cosmos, but also an active and effective instrument in that very process, there not only can be, but must be interpretations of a myth corresponding to every plane of formation of the cosmos. And so the most important principle of mythological hermeneutics is not to use interpretation to foreclose other interpretations, but to stimulate and to foster them, as the best interpretations nourish the possibility of others.

The poorest interpretation, therefore, is not one which reads a myth within a narrow scope, for example, as being the charter for a specific, concrete ritual action, but one which shuts down other interpretations by a harmful literalism. This is particularly harmful when it directly impinges upon the agency of the Gods Themselves, either by reducing them to mere types, on the one hand, or to beings subject to weaknesses that we would regard as flaws even in our fellow mortals. Our fellow mortals suffer from every sort of burden and handicap that excuse to varying degrees their vices, and that make their virtues shine all the brighter in consideration. How strange, indeed, if the Gods, without these handicaps, could not overcome these same vices, and how much worse than ourselves it would render Them. This is why none of our ancient traditions would have accepted the characterization of their Gods as ‘imperfect’ or ‘flawed’.

Where the myths appear to depict the Gods as flawed, therefore, we must understand that there are ways of interpreting these myths that restore to the Gods Their freedom of action. And this, indeed, is how we must see it, because in making the Gods slaves to petty emotions, 1 we limit Their agency every bit as much as if we regarded Them as mere types or mechanisms. In interpreting Them thus, of course, we do not harm Them, but only ourselves, and those we might persuade to see Them likewise, introducing obstacles into the path of devotion. There is a place for anthropomorphizing the Gods, that is, for seeing Them in our own image, but only insofar as it facilitates Their action on behalf of the cosmos, because otherwise, what is the point of even engaging with Them? Similarly, there is a place for speaking about a God’s ‘role’ or ‘function’, in order to facilitate engagement with Her, especially at its inception, but we must discard these notions to the degree that they would restrict that engagement.

With this primary principle in mind, therefore, that the interpretation of myth has its excellence in facilitating the cosmogonic activity of the Gods Themselves, I would like to briefly present three concrete techniques for mythological exegesis, drawn from the works of the ancient Platonists (notably Olympiodorus) which I intend to follow up in future columns with examples of their application to actual myths. 2

  • Eternalizing process 

    The sequence of the mythic narrative is from an apparent ‘earlier’ to an apparent ‘later’ moment in time. In order to free the Gods to be the agents constituting time, rather than subordinating Them to it, we interpret the myth as a static index, not in time or horizontally, as it were, but vertically, between simultaneous states of being.

  • Equalizing relations 

    Mythic narrative involves many relations in which one God is active and another is passive. To free the Gods to be the agents constituting these relations, rather than subordinate to them as a preexisting nature, and to be equally constituting agents of those relations, rather than the ‘active’ God being more constitutive than the ‘passive’ God in the mythic conjunction, we interpret every event in the myth as the product of the will of every God.

  • Conflict as Conflicting Goods

    To free the maximum cosmogonic potential of each God, we interpret conflicts between Gods not privatively, as conflicts of good and evil, or between goodness and its lack or absence, but as conflicts between goods which are divergent within the cosmos or for us.

The purpose of these hermeneutic principles is in each case not to deny the reality of the corresponding forms of limitation—limitation by temporal sequence, limitation by relation, limitation by conflict—but precisely to secure the reality of these phenomena by granting them constitution by the Gods Themselves, whereas if we were merely to subject the Gods to these limitations, these limiting factors would themselves lack any clear existential foundation; and it would be this condition that would most likely induce us to regard these phenomena as illusory.

  1. Note that I do not speak here of emotions that, to borrow some terminology from Spinoza—without necessarily importing all of the metaphysics that comes with it—increase, rather than decrease, the God’s power of action. There are sufferings of the Gods, for example, the power of which open entire domains of experience.
  2. For a fuller account of this method, see “The Theological Interpretation of Myth,” The Pomegranate: The International Journal of Pagan Studies 7.1 (May 2005), pp. 27-41 (reprinted in Essays on a Polytheistic Philosophy of Religion (New York City: Phaidra Editions, 2014).
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  1. This approach presupposes that the stories that we currently call “myths” are accurate descriptions of a given culture’s Gods. This may be a supportable assumption in the case where we have records of myths written by the people for whom they had religious significance – the Greeks and Romans, and several of the other Mediterranean and Near Eastern cultures – but it becomes difficult in cases where our only access to supposedly “mythical” material is through the lens of written documents originating centuries after the decline of the religious cultures in question, and/or where ulterior motives for the author/scribe may be suspected. Roman writers, for example, had no tradition of “objective” anthropology or ethnography, and Caesar in particular had political rather than documentary ends in mind when he wrote *De Bello Gallico*, problematizing much of what we think we know about Gaulish religion based on the written record. The Irish *Cath Maige Tuired* has been the subject of substantial critical attention, much of which suggests that the tale as we have it reflects political concerns in ninth/tenth-century Ireland rather than a preserved myth of the pre-christian past. (Personally, I’m unwilling at this point to ascribe any pre-christian validity to the *CMT* narrative action beyond the bare fact of the conflict between the Gods and the Fomoiri, and the Gods’ victory.) Put baldly, some things that we usually call “myths” probably ain’t, in a religious sense, and a rigorous polytheism will need some criteria to assess the mythic validity of individual narratives.

    • It’s true that I am fortunate to work primarily within traditions where we have primary theological texts. Certainly in cases where transmission is more problematic, such as the cases you cite, or for that matter, where lore has been transmitted through modern ethnographers, diverse efforts aimed at reconstructing and supplementing the material may be necessary in order to recover its full theophanic and theological significance. However, I don’t think that this process would result in most cases in diminishing the corpus of myth in a tradition, rather than in a reinterpretation of certain material. For example, even if a certain putative myth recovered from distorting sources should turn out to have an admixture of historical material, a sophisticated, critical reader could still discern cosmogonic themes within it. Some scholars have argued, for example, that a good deal of Roman myth is to be found in Roman narratives of their early history, and euhemerism was also a common literary tactic through which myth was preserved under monotheist hegemony, though not, of course, I stress again, without a good deal of distortion of which the interpreter must take account. Nevertheless, it is our responsibility at all times to preserve and restore for our traditions the widest possible diversity of theophanic and theological materials, and so no source ought to be discarded altogether on account of its “impurity”.

      • Edward, your example appears to be the precise reverse of the situation I was attempting to describe. The embedding of Roman myth within putatively-historical narratives preserves authentically theological material within an ostensibly non-theological framework, which can be extracted through proper use of the critical method. The example that I raised of *Cath Maige Tuired*, in contrast, is a narrative that *appears* to be authentic myth at first glance (and has been taken to be so by several previous generations of scholars), but which when engaged more critically (as in the last thirty years of Irish studies) turns out to be difficult to justify as an authentic survival of pre-christian myth. (By which I mean: very little within the tale can be corroborated by other parts of the surviving lore, especially sources which are identifiably prior to its written composition; some parts of it actively contradict other sources, some of which *are* identifiably prior; and a great deal of it can be reasonably explained as political allegory where individual deities stand in for political entities, a phenomenon also documented in Irish narratives of interaction between saints, and/or biblical allusion – the narrative parallels between Lug and the young David are numerous.) I’ve been struggling a great deal with this problem as I’ve studied *CMT* and its relationship to the surviving corpus of Irish tradition. This is a text on which most modern Irish polytheists (and a large number of other Pagans) have scaffolded their understanding of the Irish Gods. If the most plausible compositional theory for this text is that it is, in fact, largely an invention of a single ninth- or tenth-century christian author (or the work of a small number of authors and editors between the ninth and eleventh centuries), then what does that mean for our religious use of it? The tale would certainly not have been “infrastructural” in the sense that you’re using to characterize myth, either for the christian culture that produced it *or* for the preceding polytheist culture to which it was unknown. I find it highly unlikely, in consequence, that such a tale could be relied on to convey an accurate description of the natures and relations of the Irish Gods (assuming, in proper polytheist fashion, that these natures and relations *precede* the text rather than being collectively created by the belief of the humans that consume it). Do we, then, discard the tale and the edifice of reconstructionist theology and practice that has been built on it? Or do we disregard the scholarship, however sound it may appear to be, in the interest of a “diversity” of materials? I’m having difficulty finding an alternative to these options that simultaneously respects the scholarship and the basic principles of polytheism.

        • It seems that you want a simplistic answer where none is available. We depend a great deal upon the work of historians because our traditions have been sundered and ravaged, but the historian can never have the last word in a living tradition. Ultimately it is up to you to decide whether a text belongs in your tradition or not. I know that there are insightful and critical readers of the text you speak of, such as my colleague P. Sufenas Virius Lupus, who manage to use it in a way that at once acknowledges its complicated history and finds theological value in it (see, e.g., these posts from eir blog: In a sense, everything that even mentions the Gods is an effect of Them, and hence we can learn something from it, even if it is the utterly idiosyncratic gnosis of a single modern devotee, even if it is a calculated hoax. Naturally what we learn about the Gods per se from such sources may be minimal, and there likely will not be scope for the full application of what I term ‘theological’ interpretation with respect to such texts, but all the same, I do not think that our goal for our traditions should be a winnowed purity, but as I have said, the cultivation of diversity. There are ways within such diversity of establishing and transmitting authority, textual and otherwise, but this should not be the highest goal of a religion.

          • Indeed, just because a myth hasn’t any apparent reliious value or connection it doesn’t mean that it’s not based on theology. The greek poets themselves, who gave us the myths, must have had themselves knowledge of theology, otherwise they wouldn’t have written about gods at all. This paralels the bardic profession of celts, who sang or recited about the gods, and perhaps also allegories containing deep psychological and spiritual value, therefore also based on theology – and who will sing or recite about something alien to them? I’m unaware of the complexity of irish mythology, but couldn’t the CMT be also an unique composition integrated into a book, along with other unique compositions? If we were to compile in a single work the totality of ancient greek literature, wouldn’t we come up with something like a pastiche of several authors? I don’t know about irish mythology, but it’s possible that the christian priest who put them on paper did just that. Just my opinion.

  2. Well put and enlightening. It very much confirms my understanding of the struggles of Horus and Set, and Thoth’s role in keeping the peace. Seemingly conflicting aspects of both our selves and the whole can be thus resolved and the necessity of every part seen from each point of view and, as you say, vertically. All the protagonists live on Maat.

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